Varun Adibhatla's "The People's Republic of Smart City"

Imagining "Softer" Smart Cities, The Ideal Bus Stack, and Why VCs Can't Build the Smart Cities We Need


At the suggestion of a friend, I recently decided to launch a podcast alongside this newsletter.

Like most(/all) projects I launch, this is an experiment. My goal is to ship at least 100 newsletters, and I’m thinking the podcast will be a core component of Things That Should Exist.

Will I actually ship 100 newsletters? Does it matter?

Yes, I think that it does. Recently, I heard the phrase, “Quality has a quantity all it’s own.” I like that sentiment. Most of my favorite things I’ve created have been the result of sustained, frequent effort.

Why a Podcast?(“You’ve Only Shipped Two Newsletters, Alex”)

So–why a podcast?

I decided to pursue this idea for two reasons: 1) I love to interview people*. 2) I am still figuring out what Things That Should Exist is. One thing that I’m sure of, is that I don’t want it to be me, musing week-to-week on that particular topic.

That is to say that it’s much more interesting to me to ask others(currently, my friends), what things they think should exist.

This newsletter contains the first of three podcasts I recorded in the last months, with friends concerning the topic of Things That Should Exist.

I asked each friend to pick a thing they thought “should exist”. Naturally, this came from their own work, passions, and preoccupations.

Here’s the slate. I plan to release one podcast every two weeks:

  1. Varun Adibhatla’s “The People’s Republic of Smart City” (this issue) – Varun Adibhatla founded A.R.G.O., a non-profit that serves as a network of civic data scientists, and is based in NYC. In this episode, Varun shares a vision for softer, saner cities, in which infrastructure is accessible, robust, and dependable, and tech serves the needs of citizens, rather than corporate interests.

  2. Kevin S., “Autonomous Tenant Unions” – Kevin discusses his work with the Boston DSA, collaborating with tenants in Boston to wield collective power against landlords, as well as the burgeoning Autonomous Tenant Union movement happening across major US cities.

  3. Ben Shepard, “Superior Act: A radical marketplace and platform for group buying” – Ben Shepard is an artist and writer who lives in Bangkok. In this episode, Ben shares a concept for a group buying platform in which both buyers and sellers participate in the financial success of the company.

Once you’re finished listening and/or reading, please leave a comment! I’d love to know what you think.

Leave a comment

* If you’re interested in coming on the podcast and sharing your vision for a “thing that should exist”, comment here, shoot me a dm via Twitter.

Varun Adibhatla’s “The People’s Republic of Smart City”

Varun Adibhatla is a self-described “Irreverent counter of leaks, cracks & holes and slips, trips, & falls in the public realm”.

In 2015, he co-founded A.R.G.O., a non-profit focused on “Pioneering the future of government operations”. Prior to that, he worked in Wall Street.

I really enjoyed speaking with Varun, and was touched that he would be my first guest on the podcast. Thank you again, Varun! :)

What follows are some excerpts from the recording. If it piques your interest, I’d encourage listening to the podcast in full.

On “The People’s Republic of Smart City”:

Varun: The title for that was really a play on words because my experience of smart city narratives have been an extension of a mega corps, right? So you have, like, Cisco using the smart city as a platform to market its new routers and technologies. You have Google that uses this smart city platform, who kind of figured out how to make their next trillion dollars.

“The People's Republic of Smart City” comes from Boulder, [CO], because Boulder is such a hard-left [city]. I lived in Boulder for a year and a half, and they kind of joke about Boulder being “The People's Republic of Boulder”, and the joke is that, you know, it's so left that it's almost communist.

It's kind of combining the bleeding edge of smart city technology–the art of the possible, sensors and all of that–while also preserving the good parts of, I don't want to say the word “socialist”, but it's like “collective”. We want to be able to sustain grassroots movements and sustain the collective sort of citizenry, but via smart city technologies.

That's kind of what I was trying to get at when I say The People's Republic of Smart City.

On the “Libertarian Argument”, and why it’s important in building a “socially-minded” smart city:

Alex: I’m wondering how we can preserve the “social aspect” of smart cities. You know, “socialism” isn’t a bad word to me. Maybe “social democracy” is more palatable to most people. To be frank, I’m anti Libertarianism. Take Grafton, New Hampshire for example. Libertarianism, in its end stage, is atomizing. I think it causes more problems than it solves.

Varun: Yeah, I get the whole libertarian argument. Like, I have an amateurs view of libertarianism. I think it's just essentially living off the grid as much as possible. And living out of the influence of a top-down centralized system, per se.

And I get that. I mean, I guess part of those things should exist.

I mean, I feel like one of the things that should exist is a “thousand weirdos”, you know, [former MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito’s idea of] “the blooming of a thousand weirdos”.

On the necessity of curbing surveillance in The People’s Republic of Smart City:

Varun: So, the people's Republic of smart city is–how do we envision it? A city that is technologically friendly, yes, but also friendly to the public interest. What we've seen so far has been smart city platforms that are built on surveillance to a large extent.

I think that surveillance has flooded the narrative of what if smart city, or what a friendly city can look like. Part of what I am trying to get at is how do we envision a future city without this whole surveillance machine [aimed] at me?

I'm like, okay, I get that. You do have to collect personal data to some extent, but what other stuff can exist in this city, without having like a billion cameras looking at you or, you know, apps kind of following every square inch of your movement?

On VC’s and The People’s Republic of Smart City:

Alex: And so how do you think that comes about? Is it a mix of community-led–kind of stuff like the [NYC Mesh] kind of stuff–and then maybe some timely funding from institutions and VCs–or how?

Varun: I think less so from VCs, because I don't think, I don't think such ideas are inherently profitable, right? Like they don't generate your crazy growth–5x or 7x growth. At best they would probably scale at 1.5x, right? I'll give you an example.

I was about three years into living in New York. And I got surgery on my knee. And so I was on crutches and, you know, I left the operating room. One of my friends picked me up and kind of like, know, I guess, escorted because I was still drugged on the anesthesia.

And so I was a little disoriented and so I needed help. I was still new to the city, I guess I just knew this one person at that point in time. And that person, you know, had to take off from work. They were a “reluctant helper”, I'll say that. And for the next three weeks, I was just stuck at home.

You know, I had like a pandemic sort of experience because I was stuck at home. I didn't have any help. And going outside, even like attempting to board the subway on crutches was just an insurmountable kind of feat. In that moment I was like, wow, this is like, if I were in India, for example, I would have probably had a lot more help, you know–outside of the fact that I had family in India–I probably would’ve had a lot more help.

I just felt in that moment, that New York was not a very friendly place to be.

Alex: I’ve felt that definitely. Yeah. (laughter)

Varun: And, I think the small things like infrastructure, right, was it was not friendly infrastructure. You know, the fact that the stairs in the subway were just this giant challenge, for somebody on crutches, and the elevators were just impossible because if you go into an elevator nine times out of ten, you're smelling piss, or they don't work.

It was just not a very comfortable experience. And I was like, yeah, I feel like cities can be more friendly places and, the one place to start is by designing our infrastructure to allow friendliness into the city.

Uh, and then are there not examples of this, right? I think the Highline Park is a great example of a place with friendliness that’s sort of been designed into the architecture. When you go to the Highline, it feels like, you know, there are all these nooks and crannies–it feels like an adventure.

So, it's really being thoughtful about that.

Rounding Out The People’s Republic of Smart City:

Alex: I want to give you time to maybe flesh out your vision and kind of talk about some of these things [that make up The People’s Republic of Smart City].

So, , yeah, as far as, in terms of what my ideas are in terms of “things that should exist”. For The People's Republic of Smart City is having transit that just works.

I think buses are one thing, that I feel there's so much potential for just plain old buses that are spaced out every 15 minutes on a dedicated muscly.

And I mean, for the, for the urban wonks, this is Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, and there are different ways of doing BRT where you have closed off lanes. The bus operates like a subway, but it's an above-ground subway as opposed to like an underground subway.

I don't think we need that level of BRT. I just feel like if there's better enforcement of the bus lane and we space out the buses, I feel like that would go a long way in sort of reducing congestion in the city, from single occupancy cab rides and things of that nature.

And so I think that that's something that I think any people sort of public of smart cities just have like a bus, like a very solid bus network. And the technology to support that is electric buses, you know, autonomous, you could, you could do autonomous stuff in those buses. This is actually a technology that I would include surveillance pieces where I would ticket anybody violating the bus lane rule. And I think New York is already doing that.

Alex: Oh yeah. I've gotten so many tickets since being here. Like they're all from cameras. (laughter)

Varun: So I think the stack, the bus stack is: having an electric bus, having autonomy to an extent where the bus doesn’t crash into to stuff, enforcing the bus lane through some sort of imagery solution, and then eventually the public being able to track the buses in real time and show when's the next bus going to show up.

That's the ideal bus stack.

On Creating a City-Run “Marketplace of Maintainers”

Varun: The People's Republic of Smart City would be a city that that would reward maintenance. I would create a marketplace of maintainers.

I would make maintaining stuff sexy again, like, anybody who's out of a job, if they picked up the trash or if they took up some sort of maintenance job, they would be rewarded with some kind of crypto token that they can use on other city services.

Alex: So, like a marketplace, like those handyman marketplace apps, you know, but if the city ran it.

Varun: Yup.

Alex: Yeah, dude, that would be awesome.

Varun: Yeah, exactly. Like, they show up for like a class, get trained on like… garden maintenance, park maintenance, picking up trash, maybe even pothole maintenance and it would–it would be truly a marketplace of maintainers.

Thanks for reading. If you liked Varun’s ideas about The People’s Republic of Smart City, you can follow him on Twitter. He’s @vr00n. I also highly recommend his piece “Imagining a Public Technology Corps”.